Legislator Rebecca Petty considers herself tough on crime, but she also was a key mover in pushing to end juvenile life without parole in Arkansas.
Petty was the House sponsor of the ban signed into law in March. It was a dramatic reversal for the second-term Republican who only a few years earlier opposed a similar measure.
Petty comes to criminal justice reform from a painful perspective. Her 12-year-old daughter, Andi, was raped and murdered in 1999. The killer, who was not a juvenile, is on death row now, and Petty remains a staunch supporter of the death penalty.
But she changed her mind about tough sentencing for juveniles after reviewing scientific studies that show teens’ brains are not yet fully developed. She also came to know a former gang member who was convicted of murder at 15, spent about 13 years in prison and turned his life around. He now works as a youth advocate.
“It’s very difficult for me to think about leaving a kid in prison their whole life,” she says. “It’s just like you take all hope away from them.”
“It’s very difficult for me to think about leaving a kid in prison their whole life.”
In Arkansas, the new law allows juvenile homicide offenders to seek parole after 25 to 30 years, depending on the crime. Victims’ families would get notification, and the state parole board would weigh release. Petty says it is not a “get-out-of-jail-free card” but that it is about second chances.
“I’m a child advocate. How could I not fight for a kid, even if they had done the most heinous thing ever?”
Voices in the debate over juvenile sentencing
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LOCKED UP FOR LIFE
Decades ago in the tough-on-crime ‘80s and ‘90s, many states — stoked by fears of teen “superpredators” — enacted laws to punish juvenile criminals like adults. The U.S. became an international outlier, sentencing offenders under 18 to live out their lives in prison for homicide and, sometimes, rape, kidnapping, armed robbery.
There has since been a shift. Five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life without parole for juveniles in murder cases. Then last year, the court went further, saying the more than 2,000 already serving such sentences must get an opportunity chance to show their crimes did not reflect “irreparable corruption” and, if not, have some hope for freedom.
The January 2016 ruling set the stage for an unprecedented second look at hundreds and hundreds of cases, some many decades old now, in courtrooms across America. The Associated Press leveraged its reporting power in all 50 states to examine how judges and prosecutors, lawmakers and parole boards are now revisiting juvenile lifer cases. Many have been resentenced and released, with more hearings continuing in the days, weeks and months ahead. But in some states, officials have delayed review of cases or fought to keep the vast majority of their affected inmates locked up for life.